Graffiti on the island of La Réunion from January of 2015.

Graffiti on the island of La Réunion from January of 2015.


Emma Jacobs for The John Alexander Project

It took almost a week for the first copies of Charlie Hebdo’s “Tout Est Pardonnée” issue to reach the 850,000 French citizens of La Réunion after its release. The first “post-attack” issue, with the Prophet Muhammad holding a sign saying “All is forgiven,” finally arrived in the hold of a Corsair commercial passenger flight.

Meanwhile, more than 5,000 miles from where the January 2015 terror attacks had taken place, the aftereffects were already ricocheting around the island.

La Réunion is France’s most populous overseas department — the bureaucratic equivalent of a state — and a legacy, like the ubiquity of litchi fruit in Parisian supermarkets, of France’s once substantial colonial presence in the Indian Ocean. It’s a diverse tropical paradise with beaches and a volcano, France’s equivalent of Hawaii.

Political scientist Françoise Vergès has criticized “a certain French colonial nostalgia” about the island. Her half-Vietnamese father, a prominent political figure on the island, faced race-baiting campaigns during the 1950s and 1960s, and experienced firsthand the contradiction of the colonial project.

“It supports the fantasy that somewhere colonization has succeeded,” she wrote in 1999, “blending people from diverse cultures under the paternalistic control of French republicanism.”

I arrived on La Réunion just after the attack on the satirical magazine. I was there for a two-month reporting project on completely different topics, but my 15-hour layover in Paris began the morning after the hostage crisis in a French kosher supermarket ended with the deaths of four more victims and their attacker. Saturday morning on Réunion, I walked through the Jewish core of the Marais, to be startled by the sight of six French security officers with machine guns on a narrow, cobbled block, guarding Jews arriving at synagogues for Shabbat services.

Representatives of La Réunion’s community of a few hundred Jews spoke at a ceremony held on the island on Sunday, to coincide with the march in Paris attended by a gaggle of world leaders. There were editorials in the local papers on the importance of free speech, a nod to increased security measures; reporters descended interestedly on a Muslim-owned supermarket struck — perhaps accidentally — by a bullet fired well outside of business hours.

But on the whole, much less anxiety pervaded the island that is predominantly Catholic, but also Muslim and Hindu with a handful of practicing Buddhists, mostly descendants of ethnically Chinese immigrants. A number of people practice some combination of these faiths and/or incorporate traditional African belief systems.

The icon of Réunion’s blended religious traditions is the little red shrine to Saint-Expedit, a religious figure canonized only in Réunion. They appear along the roadside, the bright red color associated with Hinduism. Followers leave offerings for Saint Expédit asking him for help — or for a curse on their enemies.

A shrine to Saint Expédit.


Emma Jacobs

Discussions on La Réunion of the violent events in mainland France seemed to bring the two places’ cultural differences into sharper relief.

Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the French government had mandated a lesson in every French classroom, including in its overseas departments, on secular values. In theory, Ketty, a public school teacher in La Réunion told me, the order even extended to her preschool-aged classroom.

She had not conducted one, but even for older students, she considered the lesson redundant. “In the cafeteria,” she presented an example, “at the beginning of each year, we go through and take a list, who can’t eat pork, beef, goat?”

Pork is taboo for Muslims, beef for Hindus and goats according to certain traditions from Madagascar. Taking down these religious eating restrictions is as routine, she suggested, as going to class with students from different religions, as she did. People are used both to living in a diverse environment and making accommodations to each other’s needs and religious traditions.

The cultural clashes taking place in Metropolitan France, “This isn’t an issue for us.”

La Réunion is named for an event that took place on a revolutionary battlefield, but the moniker has become a part of the island’s narrative about its own functional diversity.

That diversity dates back to its earliest days as a French plantation colony, a grim history. The first permanent French settlers in 1663 were already outnumbered by the slaves they’d brought with them from Madagascar.

La Réunion had no “native” inhabitants. Passing sailors had written culinary epics about the joys of an island where fat birds and turtles had no fear of humans. In 1619, Dutchman Villem Ysbrantsz Bontekoe wrote that when one bird cried out in alarm, others of its species would fly toward it, “so that,” he would add, with a restrained allusion to the ensuing bloodbath, “this one bird would furnish all that was necessary for our food.”

The French established a plantation colony on the island, which would produce coffee, sugar cane and distilled geraniums — a perfume fixative — for export. Slaves were brought from Madagascar, east Africa and India.

France’s Revolutionary cry of liberté, egalité and fraternité made the continued existence of slavery in the French colonies sit far less comfortably and, after some false starts, it was finally ended in 1848. Growing numbers of indentured servants and migrant workers from India joined the agricultural workforce.

On an island so far from the French mainland, this range of origins led to a more diverse genetic landscape than materialized in other French possessions.

Jean-Sébastien Hery delivers school lunches to the most remote schools on the island by helicopter every other week. 800 people live in a scattering of villages in a collapsed crater of the ancient volcano that created the island. The caldera, Mafate, can only be reached by foot or by helicopter.

The very first residents had escaped slavery on the plantations and the names of trails and towns attest to a history in which they were sometimes pursued by bands of soldiers or vigilantes. “Scout trail” arrives at the Îlet à Malheur, named for a massacre of some 40 people — fugitives from the law who had formed a community there — in 1829.

While the plastic sacks of baguettes and canned vegetables were being tied to the skids of his aircraft, Hery told me he was a former French military pilot turned commercial aviationist. He arrived on the tropical island eight years ago and, he joked, tore up his passport so he could never catch a flight out.

“Life is so marvelous here and the people are really marvelous. Look at all this mix of colors,” he said, indicating the skin on his own forearm and that of the men around him.

“It’s extraordinary.”

In today’s metropolitan France, whose racial diversity also stems largely from its colonial past, there’s a deep distrust of communitarianism, divisions that form along ethnic or other identities. Communitarianism is generally seen as incompatible with the national principles of liberalism (liberté, egalité, fraternité are joined by an unofficial fourth term, laïcité — or secularism, with historical roots in the rejection of the once-close relationship between the French church and state ).

This discomfort is often expressed in a sort of determined color-blindness, of the Stephen Colbert “I don’t see color” variety. The French government, for example, is banned from collecting racial statistics.

Réunionese do not see these principles as irreconcilable and they are certainly not color-blind.

The island has a codified list of ethnic identities that come up frequently in conversation.

After Hery flies off, the two city employees who have loaded up the helicopter casually identified themselves as cafre and malbar respectively. Cafre is the term for people of African descent. Malbar refers to practicing Hindus of Indian origin.

Zarabes are Indians who practice Islam. Grand blancs are the descendants of wealthy white merchants and plantation owners. Petit blancs or yabs are descendants of poor white settlers.

Hery, the pilot, is a zoreil, or a more recent arrival from Metropolitan France. Zoreils are generally white and often viewed by long-term residents with a combination of bemusement and an attitude similar to that with which American urbanites regard gentrifiers. If he stays long enough, he might be able to call himself a zoreol — or a zoreil who has lived on the island long enough to “go native.”

But if you talk with someone with family roots in La Réunion, it generally comes out that there is some cross-over in their background, with ancestors tracing from many points of origin and many points in time.

“I am a mix, a true Réunionnais,” as Daniel Revel put it.

Revel works on the same estate his great-grandfather did after immigrating to the island from India. Louis Latchoumay was employed as a gardener at the Chateauvieux plantation. His son, Revel’s grandfather, graduated from waiter at the family table to head groundskeeper.

Revel grew up following Ti-Louis, or “Little Louis” around the grounds of the estate — since donated to the state to become an astoundingly beautiful botanical garden. His grandfather taught him about the plants and birds, and tricks like using a section of bamboo as a straw to suck up the clean water below the turbid surface of a stream.

A photo of Daniel Revel’s grandfather in retirement.


Emma Jacobs

The fields of this plantation were never farmed by slaves, but the family was related to famous historical villains like Mme. Desbassyns, rumored to haunt the depths of the island’s still-active volcano in perpetual torment for her sins against the people she owned.

The Réunionese, Revel believes, departing from the path of other French colonies like Guadeloupe and Martinique, have put an “X” on the period of slavery in their history, at least emotionally. They have marked a division, relegating it to the past.

Activists in metropolitan France argue today that if you can’t collect racial statistics, if you can’t see color, you can’t measure racial inequities. Réunionese are a diverse bunch but economic stratification on the island also still roughly follows racial lines. Laurent Médéa made a comprehensive study of the island in 2003, which he published as a book, Réunion: An Island in search of an Identity in 2010. He found that income and professional outcomes still corresponded roughly to racial background (measured by self-identification with the categories identified above). The descendants of whites had fared better than those predominantly of Indian extraction, who largely did better than the descendants of Africans.

If cracks are ever revealed in the harmonious social fabric, it’s in stories about money and land.

Ailen Tamon had moved back to the home of her mother, who was in ill health. It’s a traditional case en paille, or thatched-roof bungalow high in the hills. The kitchen’s front wall is open to the lush garden and balmy weather. The other walls are lined with flattened food tins. Her grandfather’s brother lived in this house. Her grandfather lived next door. Both men were sharecroppers on this land, tending sugarcane for the grands blancs, the descendants of the family that had established its plantation here.

Education and jobs in education, Tamon said, were a social elevator. Her own parents required her to succeed in school as a way out of poverty. Tamon became a teacher.

If it seems like everyone you’ve met so far on this island works for the government, this is no accident. La Réunion became a French department — the equivalent of a U.S. state in 1946 — beginning a period of government build-up and investment. Today, a substantial amount of economic activity takes place off-the-books, but since the collapse of agricultural employment in the face of mechanization, the island’s standard of living has relied heavily on state jobs and welfare payments.

The school in the tiny community of Îlet à Malheur in Mafate had ten students and ten employees.

But the federal government’s support does not seem to have come with as rigid an imposition of metropolitan-style secularism in public life. The mayor of Saint-Denis can put up a sign outside city hall wishing citizens a “Happy Eid.” That’s unimaginable in in Paris.

A streetscape in the departmental capital, Saint-Denis.


Emma Jacobs

The crisis of liberalism as it’s playing out in European France revolves around anxieties about how much religious self-expression to allow in the public sphere. As a point of fact, these concerns seem to generally hew to the practices of French Muslims. In Paris, great anxiety has been generated over the question of whether a woman wearing a veil over her face is too “ostentatious” a sign of individual particularism, of self-segregation from the polity, or imposing her views of female propriety in some way on those around her.

While the veil is less contentious on La Réunion, there’s also the reality that few Muslims there come from a tradition that calls for one.

Any comparisons between Réunion and the Metropole must be made with great caution. The demographics simply differ. There are a handful of North Africans here (and interestingly a number of descendants of pieds-noir, French settlers, who left Algeria but found mainland France far too cold). However, the vast majority of Muslims on the island trace their roots to India. This is exponentially different from mainland France, where Islam has been tied up with French fears of pan-Arab nationalism since the 1950s and the bloody separation with its North African colonies.

What happened to make La Réunion what it is? “Slavery happened,” says James Christie, and then the islanders found a way to live with each other moving forward.

Though visitors arriving here, he notes, are always looking for holes in La Réunion’s apparent harmony.

As we talked, he was weaving his ancient grey Twingo up a series of 180 degree curves climbing between tall grasses at a speed that only someone who has spent over a decade here would dare. Christie is from the UK. He moved to Réunion to teach English for a year, which became two.

He’d tried once to return to a steady office job in grey London. He lasted three weeks before he bought a one-way ticket back. With the exception of a stint in South America, he has lived on the island ever since.

“I think Réunion could be a model for the rest of the world,” he says, bluntly. Certainly, it presents a model of religious cohabitation he thinks ought to be a model for mainland France, if metropolitans would make an effort to learn more about their remote outpost.

Another of its residents, Houssen Amode, doesn’t like to use the word “model” himself.

“I think it’s pretentious,” he says.

“But there is an enriching experience [on La Réunion] that could be useful to the Metropole.”

Amode is the island’s representative on the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which Nicolas Sarkozy created as interior minister in 2003 in a rare nod to the idea of communitarianism. Amode has his modest office next door to the Grande Mosque of Saint-Denis, La Réunion’s departmental capital. Its minaret stands out above the low-rise, historic center of the city. 

Réunionese, Amode posits, have become adept at making accommodations to each other’s needs and traditions. The Grande Mosque, he says, respects its neighbors by lowering the call to prayer late at night (“In the time of the prophet, there was no Sony”). While he does not believe the island is immune to radicalization, he thinks it’s a fundamentally more peaceful place.

He says he tries to present La Réunion’s “enriching experience” with tact when he sees his council colleagues from Metropolitan France. He’s the first to acknowledge the island’s diversity comes with a very different backstory. 

But when the public dialogue often devolves into whether there is something fundamentally at odds between French values and Islam, or French society and communitarianism, it’s certainly interesting to look to this island in the tropics which seems to have room for both.

While on La Réunion, I visited a journalist named Jean-Paul Mélade at the Saint-Denis offices of Radio France. Security at the offices had been tightened, as ordered by the government for all the public broadcaster’s offices in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. There was no need, Mélade said dismissively. This was not metropolitan France.

But the offices were wallpapered with simple “Je Suis Charlie” posters printed out on sheets of 8 ½ by 11. Did they feel such solidarity as journalists?” I asked. “No,” he said firmly. “It’s because we are French.”

But it is a place of France and apart — whether by accident of history or by choice.

After World War II, La Réunion’s political leaders pushed for full integration as a department, which became law in 1946. It remained as other parts of the French empire broke away.

France’s overseas departments still encompass a tremendous variety of experience. Right on the other side of Madagascar, only a few hundred miles away, the island of Mayotte became a department in 2011 following a popular vote. Overwhelmingly Muslim, around this same time, Mayotte had street protests against Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the prophet.

And while Réunionese have been traveling to the Metropole in growing numbers for decades to pursue higher education and job opportunities, many report feeling unwelcome, targets of racial prejudice they hadn’t experienced before.

A day or two before I left the island of La Réunion, I finally got to an item on my to-do list since not long after I arrived. I went to find the shop from the report in the newspaper, the zarabe-owned supermarket in the city of Le Port that had a bullet shot through its window in the days after Charlie Hebdo.

In the paper, Roumana Alibay had been quoted on behalf of the enterprise, saying, “People are making a story out of nothing. It’s not worth it to get us mixed up in all the world’s troubles.”

I found her behind the counter of Anti-Crise when I visited, wearing a grey headscarf and light green, long-sleeved shirt. The shop belonged to her uncle but she worked here sometimes when he was away.

When I brought up her comment to the newspaper, she all but rolled her eyes at the eccentricities of reporters. “It was illogical to have even asked the question,” whether the incident was related to France’s ethnic tensions, she told me.

“I’ve been to metropolitan France and in Metropolitan France, everything they brought up, that is there,” she said. “Here, we don’t have this type of problem."

I haven’t reached any grand revelation about all of this in a year — whether La Réunion has or has not figured out a secret to successful coexistence the rest of us have not, but I’ve found myself mulling over these events a lot.

Coming from an American perspective, the “perfect integration” story seems a little too good to be true. Réunionese’s insistence on their peaceful coexistence can ring hollow. Is it possible that they’ve somehow found the path to perfect social harmony? Then again, how can an outsider judge what’s going on in so many people’s heads in the span of two months? Whereas, regardless of how you might envision a complete social restructuring, back home the anger fueling the “black lives matter” protest movement can seem healthy — something was broken and needs to be fixed and a process is underway — slow, messy or flawed as it might be, to repair our society.

As Alibay said, La Réunion and metropolitan France are different. Their histories having been so contingent, perhaps few lessons can be exported. There is something striking, however, about how Reunion’s openness about religious and ethnic difference has kept the peace far better than the mainland’s attempt to erase it.
For the last couple of weeks leading up to the one year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I’ve been back in Paris.

I had my first twinge of real concern on Monday after an announcement on the metro about a service disruption due to a suspicious package near a station I’d passed through recently.

In that moment, the idea of opting out of the “world’s troubles,” as Alibay called them, whether by miracle or imperfect compromise, had its appeal.

This story originally appeared on Medium. Emma Jacobs reported from Réunion as an NPR Above the Fray fellow, sponsored by the John Alexander Project, dedicated to supporting young journalists and finding untold stories.

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